The sudden onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the eighteen months (and counting) of uncertainty that followed have created a lot of stress and anxiety.
Unfortunately, in addition to an increase in the number of people picking up takeout and curbside groceries during lockdown, we’ve also seen an increase in the number of people picking up cigarettes again, breaking a decades-long decline.
In 2018, the United States reached a record-low number of smokers, with only 14% of the population using tobacco products on a regular basis - a two-thirds drop in the number of smokers since 1964, when the Surgeon General first sounded the alarm about the dangers of smoking.
But as the pandemic wore on, there were some signs that smoking was on the rise again. Cigarette makers saw an increase in the number of cigarette sales from previous years: according to the Department of the Treasury, cigarette sales for the first 10 months of 2020 were up roughly 1%. Since 2015, there had been a 4% to 5% decline in cigarette sales each year.
At the same time, there was a marked decrease in the number of calls to quitlines - phone services that help people quit smoking. Every year since 2012, there had been between 700,000 and 900,000 calls to quitlines in the United States, but this fell by 27% from 2019 to 2020, with a 39% drop between April and June 2020 alone.
“Researchers...have suggested that stress and anxiety that resulted from the pandemic may be factors that are driving up the use of tobacco, alcohol, and other substances...and may have contributed to the decrease in the number of people seeking help to quit tobacco use,” said Linda Bailey, President and CEO of the North American Quitline Consortium.
Changes in work environments and financial situations also likely played a role. As everyone began to work from home, “employees were no longer in smoke-free offices and had more opportunities to take a break and light up a cigarette, especially amid overall higher stress and anxiety due to the economy and health crisis.” They were also not limited by restrictions on smoking in public places. In addition, people had more disposable income due to restrictions on restaurants, bars, concerts, movie theaters, and travel.
Altria, the company that makes Marlboro cigarettes, saw this trend impact its business. From 2018 to 2019, their cigarette shipment volume fell 7.3%, but from 2019 to 2020, they only saw a decrease of 0.4% - including a 3.1% increase in the fourth quarter. It’s unclear how continued lockdowns and restrictions, as well as a slowed return-to-office because of the Delta variant, will impact their sales going forward.
The impact of smoking on COVID-19
The coronavirus still hasn’t been around long enough for us to have many peer-reviewed studies on it - most research on the virus, risk factors, and treatments are still ongoing.
If you Google hard enough, you will find some studies that proclaim a lower prevalence of severe complications among COVID patients who are also smokers, or that smoking is somehow a “protectant” against severe illness.
However, many of these studies were published in early stages of the pandemic, did not go through a formal process for peer review, and had several flaws in their data analysis.
(For the sake of providing correct information, we will not be linking to these studies; however, here is an article explaining the issues with these studies and their conclusions).
The broader consensus is that smoking continues to be bad for you from a general health perspective, and you are likely to experience worse outcomes as a smoker or former smoker if you contract COVID-19. One study even found a link between smoking and increased severity and risk of death in hospitalized COVID-19 patients.
"The U.S. Surgeon General has conclusively linked smoking to the suppression of the immune system," said Anne DiGiulio, the director of national lung policy at the American Lung Association. "And according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, smoking increases the risk of illness from the virus that causes COVID-19. In light of this, quitting has never been more important."
Smoking does a lot of damage to your body that can lead to worse outcomes from COVID-19:
- Lowering your immunity to respiratory infections and causing additional challenges and strain on your lungs, so that they are already weakened when the coronavirus begins to attack them
- Destroying the cilia in your lungs. Cilia are tiny hairs that keep viruses out of your airways and are one of your body’s main defenses against an infection
- Smokers are already likely to get sicker from conditions like the flu and pneumonia, as well as acute respiratory distress - all of which prevent oxygen from getting into your lungs and to the rest of your body
Research is still ongoing about the impacts of COVID-19 on former smokers as opposed to current smokers, but conventional wisdom shows that quitting smoking will allow your lungs to begin to heal, and should you contract COVID-19, your body will be more able to fight off an infection.
I picked up smoking during the pandemic, but I’m ready to cut back again
If you are among the people who picked up cigarettes again during the pandemic and you want to cut back, now is a great time to get started.
There are several health benefits to quitting smoking at any time, and in the context of the coronavirus, it’s even greater. By cutting back on cigarettes, your lungs will have some relief and will be more able to protect you against the Delta variant and other future variants.
Plus, now that we can go to restaurants, bars, and concerts again, you might remember that you still can’t smoke in many public places - and who wants to be that person who can’t get through a whole concert without a cigarette?
There are several proven methods to help you kick the habit. When used correctly, nicotine gums and lozenges are effective in helping you curb your cravings. They work by giving you a small amount of pure nicotine, minus all of the other nasty ingredients found in cigarettes.
Disclaimer: The information contained in this website is provided for general informational purposes only and is not intended as, nor should not be construed as a substitute for, professional medical or health advice on any subject matter. Please consult your physician regarding any medical treatment decisions.